Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Life lines 6


I attended a three-day conference on the history of biotechnology held at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I serve as a member of the advisory board for the CSHL Library archives and looked forward to the presentations. As preparation for the meetings, I reviewed a book that just came out by a fellow geneticist and historian of science, Krishna Dronamraju [Emerging Consequences of Biotechnology]. Dronamraju’s account was a history of controversy over genetically modified foods, diminishing biodiversity as much of the natural world’s forests are chopped down around the world and not replaced, diminished numbers of cultivars (varieties) of domesticated food crops, biopiracy (the theft of natural products and their medicinal uses in underdeveloped countries and their exploitation for profit by large corporations in the US and Europe), and battles over patenting and intellectual property rights. Very little of that was raised at the CSHL Conference. There were lots of papers on the founding of biotechnology companies and why most failed and some succeeded. I learned that it takes 17 years for a scientific idea to become a marketed product. I learned that during the start up years many of the scientists were unpaid, and depended on their university salaries to feed their families. Their rewards during those lean years of development being the gourmet lunches and dinners they had as the companies wooed venture capitalists and brought along their top scientists to discuss how the product works. I learned that many of the scientists and the wealthy individuals who provided the millions of dollars to build the factory, buy the equipment, and pay the salaries of the employees were idealists who believed they were “saving the world” by providing new products, most of them made by engineered or inserted genes, to act as vaccines, to help sick people lacking the hormones their bodies need, to treat cancers, to prolong life, to modify plants so they won’t be eaten by insects or reduced to spores by harmful molds. It is a high-risk industry. Only one idea in a hundred reaches the market. Most don’t work when tested on humans or tested in greenhouses or tested in fields or brought to other countries and don’t work in those exotic environments.

Both of these presentations are largely true. One doesn’t nullify the other. But trying to get the Greenpeace activists, environmentalists, and poor farmers in developing nations to applaud the sacrifices of those founders of biotechnology companies is as difficult as getting venture capitalists, CEOs, and board member scientists to appreciate the outrage a Brazilian collector of herbal medicines feels when his product is brought to an American corporation, its product extracted and patented, its local name used and copyrighted and the local collector finds himself sued for not paying royalties for selling his local product under its original name. The poor and undereducated are unaware of the ways of the well educated and well paid industrialized owners and workers. The well to do scientists in industrialized nations are largely ignorant of the ways poor people make a living, who see in their soil a culture and heritage that goes back for millennia. Each feels the other side is greedy or misguided or ideologically rigid. As globalization increases, as Peace Corps type volunteerism increases around the world, as our news media reflect both sides of these controversies without reducing them to political conflicts, and as these new technologies are done by local scientists in developing nations, perhaps using biotechnology will be as common and local as using electricity.

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